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The endurance test that is entrepreneurialism
We were immensely impressed reading about ultra-marathon runner Karl Meltzer’s hiking of the entire Appalachian Trail recently. Meltzer averaged an insane 47 miles of hiking a day for 45 consecutive days to accomplish this record. While we are no endurance athletes ourselves, we thought that Meltzer’s feat held some relevance for the endurance test that is entrepreneurialism, so we dug a little deeper to find out how he went about accomplishing this incredible feat.
As is detailed in the New York Magazine article linked above, Meltzer used some of the following tenets to guide his efforts in hiking the Appalachian Trail. We’ve added some thoughts below on several of the principles as we believe each applies to building a growth company.
For Meltzer, this concept meant not going out too fast too early when he felt great at the beginning of his hike. For an entrepreneur, we believe “pacing oneself” is very sound advice in building a great company. The business media loves to glorify once-in-a-lifetime, strike-it-rich successes like WhatsApp’s sale to Facebook, before real businesses have been built and products monetized. From our experience, we know that such successes do happen in each market upswing, but these are very rare; a more likely path to success comes from disciplined adherence to sound business principles over many years. For an entrepreneur, building a company can feel a bit like Sisyphus pushing the rock up a hill, but one customer will lead to another customer, and on and on it will go. Along the way, it is important to celebrate the successes as they come but not get too frustrated if they don’t come all at once.
Beat and broken down? Focus on what you can control
For Meltzer, he had an injury mid-hike, and he knew that an injured shin could be potentially disastrous for his attempt to break the record in hiking the Appalachian Trail. Much to Metzer’s credit, he had the mental discipline and energy to focus on those small steps which were right in front of him, and this focus allowed him to overcome the adversity. For an entrepreneur, this tenet is a great analog to focusing on what one can control along the growth company path. Along the journey, large customers may promise that they are going to buy and then go silent; investors may seem interested but then get cold feet; board members may give contradictory advice. It is critical that an entrepreneur focus on what he or she can control within his or her own company, building the team along the way with people who are trustworthy, smart, and driven. Success is more likely to come from a thousand prudent decisions along the way, not one dramatic thunderbolt as portrayed in the movies.
We have to admit that this may have been our favorite of Metzer’s tenets. As minority growth investors, we have to live by this credo, as we are not in control of the companies where we invest and most of the success in our portfolio comes from the hard work of the team on the ground. We are passionate about entrepreneurs and know how hard it is to build a great growth company, so we always try to thank our portfolio companies for their hard work whenever we can. In much the same way, an entrepreneur is only as strong as the team that she builds around her, so investing in a culture where expressing gratitude is the norm makes so much sense to us. People work harder when acknowledged for their contributions, and it takes a team to build something truly special.
Focus on the process
Metzer knew that he couldn’t do the whole hike in one fell swoop, so he broke the hike down into its component pieces which made the daunting task seem more manageable. Similarly, we often counsel our entrepreneurs to build sustainable processes into their companies so that they and their employees can replicate tasks easily and are not as exposed to human error when building a company. By giving employees clearly defined processes which allow them to focus on what’s really important, an entrepreneur greatly increases the chances that his company will be successful. It is easy to look at the totality of what needs to happen to scale a business and become overwhelmed; by breaking the greater task into its component parts and then putting a process around each, an entrepreneur has a much greater likelihood of success.
It turns out that hiking the Appalachian Trail faster than anyone else ever has is really hard! Metzer knew that it would be difficult, but he embraced the struggle and accomplished something remarkable. We don’t know any other way to say it, so we’ll just be blunt – building a successful growth company is really hard! However, the rewards, both monetary and intrinsic, can be well worth the struggle, but an entrepreneur must enjoy the journey along the way and recognize that it will be very hard, with many peaks and valleys. A successful exit will likely be monetarily life-changing for many of the employees at a successful growth company, but we have found that most entrepreneurs look back at the journey and struggle of building a team, getting a product to market, winning (or losing) a customer as the fondest memories of their entrepreneurial journey. Enjoy the struggle – it will go by fast and you’ll create a lifetime of memories with great people along the way if you laugh at yourself during the tough times and then celebrate the successes along the way.
And drink coffee
This was our favorite of Metzer’s tenets! And the only one we can say with confidence we have fully mastered.